Didja ever see the sign “other whites” hanging over a mish-mash of varieties the last time you visited your favorite wine retailer, while all the hoity-toity varietals like chardonnay and sauvignon blanc got their own signs? The “other” section is a lonely place in a wine shop. Not many customers stop by and it is stocked, in many cases, out of obligation. Didja ever wonder what those “other” wines are?
In addition to eclectic blends and the occasional viognier, you’ll often find the overlooked grapes of pinot gris, gewürztraminer, muscat, pinot blanc, riesling and on rare occasions the long-lost grapes sylvaner and auxerois. These are the noble varieties of Alsace, France. In addition to being one of the most beautiful places in the world, it is home base for some of the most under-appreciated, “other” wine varieties.
Under-appreciated wine varieties! Don’t tell that to winemakers in Anderson Valley, Calif. This frigid, windy, foggy corner of Northern California loves Alsatian varieties, probably because they share many of the climatic qualities of northeastern France, where Alsace is located. Shrugging off the “otherness” of these wines, the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association has sponsored The International Alsace Varietals Festival in order to place a well-needed spotlight on these delicious white wines.
The fifth-annual festival will be held in and around Booneville on Feb. 20 and 21 (http://www.avwines.com) and features dozens of West Coast winemakers. Booneville is about 100 miles north of San Francisco and a million miles away from the über-elegance of Napa Valley. You won’t see any gleaming shrines to wine here, but you will see a lot smiling faces on some very serious, dedicated winemakers.
I figured if Alsatian whites were good enough for the fine folks in Anderson Valley to celebrate, they’re good enough for me. So I cobbled together 20 wines of the Alsatian persuasion from California, Oregon and Washington for a tasting. Some Alsatian specialists I was familiar with, such as Handley Cellars and Foris, but some not. I was not surprised by the clean, crisp wines, full of fresh fruit flavors. Trying my best not to be cliché, I describe these as “honest” wines.
What the heck is an “honest” wine? It is a wine that hasn’t been futzed with too much. There’s not much oak fermentation or aging. These wines have not been inoculated with lactobacillus to give them creamier, buttery flavors and aromas. You basically get fermented grape juice in a bottle…make that pure, unadulterated, honest fermented grape juice in a bottle.
Why these varietals have not found favor with American wine lovers is a mystery. They’ve got a lot going for them. In general, they’re low in alcohol; they’re inexpensive; due to their scintillating acidity, they are some of the most food-friendly wines (Szechuan cuisine + pinot gris = O.M.G.); and, with the exception of gewürztraminer, they’re easy to pronounce.
So the next time you’re strolling down the wine aisle or perusing a wine list, get crazy and take a walk on the “other” side.
2008 Anne Amie Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley, Oregon
• Two Thumbs Way Up
• Clean aromas of tart citrus and a flinty, ozone-like quality. It has flavors of lime, gooseberry, lemon zest and pear and a light minty finish.
2007 Handley Riesling, Mendocino County, Calif.
• Two Thumbs Up
• It has aromas of apricot, green apple, raw almond and peach tea with similar flavors, plus exotic fruits like guava, star fruit and pomegranate.
2008 Foris Riesling, Rogue Valley, Oregon
• Two Thumbs Up
• Simple but pleasant, this wine has a spicy, white pepper, lemon and honey aromas. It has mouth-watering flavors of crisp, green apple with a piercing acidity, peach ice tea, a fair amount of minerals, a light mint quality and pear.
2007 Foris Gewürztraminer, Oregon
• Two Thumbs Up
• Intriguing aromas of honey, apricot and crème fraîche. It has zesty flavors of nutmeg, cinnamon with a dollop of lemon, apricot and dry orange peel. It begs for food, especially spicy Asian dishes.
(Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from thumbs down, one thumb mostly up, one thumb up, two thumbs up, two thumbs way up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.)